Jeremy Kuhn – Sign Language Semantics

Since the 1970s, sign languages have been known to be natural human languages, complete with their proper histories and grammars. Over the last few decades, linguistic work on sign language has given us a fuller understanding of the human language capacity, allowing us to abstract away from the acoustic channel and observe new properties that only emerge in the visuospatial modality. This work has shown that that sign language fits into known typologies, but that unique properties of sign language can be used to gain linguistic insights: resolving existing debates or opening new questions.

This course will focus on the relatively new field of sign language semantics. Sign languages (like spoken languages) communicate meaning by combining words through a logical system. Additionally, sign languages are known for their iconicity, in which meaning is communicated in a holistic, pictorial manner. How do we incorporate these iconic properties into the formal grammar, and can these iconic properties give us more general insight into the logical engine underlying natural language? The class will cover a variety of topics, including the use of space and iconicity to represent discourse referents, event structure, and plurality, as well as the relationship between iconicity, gesture, and quotation. 

No prior knowledge of a sign language is required.